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Ugandan Youth Demand Government Action on Unemployment

FILE - Gold miners sift through sandy soil as they work at an excavation site at a small scale mine in Bugiri, 348 km (216 miles) east of Kampala, Uganda's capital, Feb. 5, 2013.

With Uganda's unemployment rate at near 83 percent, the government is being challenged by a group of former students who have formed the National Association of the Unemployed. Their demands are for the government to sponsor and create jobs for Uganda’s large youth population.

Uganda has one of the highest rates of unemployment on the African continent. It also has one of the largest populations of people under 30.

This combination has created a contentious climate from which the National Association of the Unemployed has emerged. The group is asking the government for widespread reforms to ease unemployment burdens.

Demands made by the NOU include the creation of a ministry of unemployment, parliamentary representation, equal opportunity for job candidates and the creation of job centers.

NOU has threatened to boycott the 2016 elections, if the government does not act on their program.

“We want to bring all the unemployed Ugandans under one organization, under one forum, and we want to tell them and prove that even the oppressed majority have the power to change things," explained Doreen Nyanjura, communications director for NOU. "You know things must be right in this country… but we shall do our best to make sure that, you know, the problem of unemployment is solved once and for all. Failure to do that we shall mobilize all these unemployed Ugandans not to participate in the 2016 elections.”

The Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development insists it is working on policies to help expand job opportunities for youth. Programs such as the Youth Venture Capital Fund have set aside $9.5 million to assist startups in the private sector.

The Youth Livelihood Program has also been instituted to teach vocational and entrepreneurial skills to young people around the country.

Milton Turyasiima, the ministry's principal labor officer of research and statistics, says he understands the problem.

“Unemployment is still a challenge to our government," he said. "The economy is still small; it has not yet reached that capacity where it can employ all the labor force… So that is a challenge. Around 400,000 Ugandans enter the labor force every year and the capacity of our economy, the maximum it can do is maybe 100,000. So the remaining people can’t have jobs. But the government has put in many measures, many measures to address this problem of unemployment."

Lack of solutions

The NOU believes that while such programs are positive, funding for them has essentially dried up. They also list social ills that entice the unemployed, such as prostitution, drug dealing, and theft, as symptomatic of this issue.

Turyasiima suggests the ministry is open to engaging them, as long as the group is properly organized. But the government’s solution to unemployment is clear.

“The only option is, out of this, is entrepreneurship. People should develop skills to employ, and I think we need to change the mindset of the younger people. We should look at, instead of employment, rather than studying that when you finish you will be waiting for another person to employ you. …We have a change in a mindset, so that people study knowing they will be employing themselves," said Turyasiima.

Yet many students think the solution of all unemployed Ugandans starting their own business is unrealistic.

“This government has intentionally made studying and degrees irrelevant," said Nyanjura. "We have little or no hopes of finding something to do when we’re done with our studies. I don’t know how many of us really have the capacity to do that [become entrepreneurs]. For example there are some people in our group who have already tried to start some small businesses and all that, only for the executive director of KCCA, Jennifer Musisi, to say she no longer wants people to operate, you know from the streets and all that. So we’ve been pushed to the wall from all corners."

The NOU say they and their demands are not going away. Government officials have stated they welcome ideas and talks on reforms leading to employment - but demands must be both reasonable and achievable.